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Some Golden Harbor: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Sunday, April 16, 2006 19:37 EDT



Charlestown on Bennaria

    Adele looked about the meeting room. Pink-patterned marble faced the walls to shoulder height; above that were mirrors framed with gilt pilasters. All the furniture had ornately carved gilt legs. The central table--though the chairs were pushed back from it--had a malachite top of surpassing tastelessness, and the overfilled upholstery was of contrasting pastel shades picked out with gold embroidery.

    Adele's mother had sincerely believed in the Equality of Man and the natural good taste of simple people whom society had not trammeled with artificialities of culture. She would've been horrified if she'd learned that her daughter, eyeing these furnishings, was thinking, This is precisely the sort of ugly trash one expects to find when a member of the lower orders comes into money.

    On the other hand, Evadne Mundy, born Evadne Rolfe, had spent all her life on the rarified peaks of Cinnabar culture, while Adele had lived for many years among the poorest of the poor. And of course Evadne hadn't been able to learn anything since a couple of soldiers--simple, uncultured people--had fixed her head to a spike on Speaker's Rock. Rest in peace, mother.

    When Luff led Daniel and Adele into the windowless room on the top floor of Manco House, there were already four men smoking fat cigars as they waited. The smoke had a stomach-turning sweetness. Adele's briefing materials had mentioned that the Bennarians steeped their tobacco in molasses before smoking it, but she hadn't realized that the fact would have any direct bearing on her mission.

    It would be harmful to the Cinnabar mission if the Commander's aide vomited during his initial meeting with the Bennarian Council. They were tasteless cretins from the look of them, but they'd nonetheless take offense.

    Adele was the only woman present. The briefing materials also mentioned that the Bennarian attitude toward women was unenlightened by the standards of Cinnabar or, for that matter, the Alliance. Adele supposed she'd eliminate slavery before she worried about gender equality, but in any case, her present duties didn't involve doing either.

    "About time you got here, Luff," said a grossly fat man in puce, sprawled on a loveseat. An ordinary armchair would've been uncomfortably tight. "You called us, so the least we can expect is that you show up yourself."

    "If it please you, Councilor Waddell," Luff said. "I'd like to present Commander Leary of the--"

    Ignoring him, Waddell turned to the balding, bearded man on his right and said, "Where's Layard, do you know, Knox?"

    "How would I know?" Knox said with a scowl, but he turned his head so that he didn't blow his powerful jet of smoke directly at Waddell. "You were the one who called him."

    "We can go on without him," said a third man, probably the oldest of them. He wore a gold waistcoat over a red tunic with puffed sleeves; he'd dribbled cigar ash on it.

    "Do you think so, Fahey?" Waddell said. He sucked in a deep puff of smoke, then let it curl out through his nostrils. "I think we'll wait."

    Fahey turned his head and pretended to be studying the trio of gilt lions supporting a globe whose continents and seas were inlaid in semiprecious stone. The world it depicted wasn't Bennaria nor any other planet Adele recognized off the top of her head.

    Another local man entered. His clothes were relatively sober in color--white, cream, and tan--but included tights, a skirt, and ruffs at throat, wrists, and ankles.

    "You took your time, Layard," Fahey said.

    "I had things to do," Layard snapped. "What's this all about, Waddell?"

    The fat man blew a geyser of smoke toward the ceiling. "That's for Master Luff to tell us. We're waiting, Luff."

    "If it please you, gentlemen," the Manco agent said obsequiously, "this is Commander Leary of the Cinnabar navy. He says he's come in response to your summons. I at once informed Councilor Waddell. Commander?"

    "Say, that was good time!" said the man who hadn't spoken to that point. He was the youngest of the five, though well into his thirties. "How big a fleet did you bring, Leary?"

    Adele unobtrusively settled onto one of two straight-backed chairs in an alcove setting off a large allegorical painting: a man in armor--though helmetless to display his flowing blond hair--was strangling a dragon in a forest while other people knelt in attitudes of prayer. Adele placed the data unit on her lap.

    It would've been easier to stand and place the unit on the sideboard which held a display of ornate silver, but work wasn't the only thing on Adele's mind. She didn't need to observe the meeting, but she knew she'd feel uncomfortable with her back turned toward this crew.

    "I'm here as head of an advisory mission, gentlemen," Daniel said easily. "The Senate sent me to aid our friend Bennaria in its present difficulties on Dunbar's World."

    "Yes, but how many ships?" the man said, leaning forward to emphasize the question.

    "The Senate sent me and my support staff, Councilor," Daniel said, still smiling. "I'm aboard my private yacht, though if you'll permit me the use of missiles from your own naval stores I'm sure--"

    "A staff!" Knox said. "By God, sir! We made it quite clear that we needed a fleet, not some junior officer! Luff, didn't you--"

    "If you please, Councilor Knox!" Daniel said. "The Mancos represented your interests ably in Xenos; but."

    Adele felt the corners of her mouth twitch. Daniel hadn't precisely shouted, but he was used to being heard in the midst of a battle; he'd certainly been heard this time. Hogg and Tovera in the outer room would be planning how to kill all the other servants and guards waiting with them... though knowing that pair, they'd done that within the first thirty seconds of arrival.



    Daniel smiled more broadly than she did--than she ever did. "Guarantor Porra," he said, "has attempted to give the Senate direct orders without any notable success. Senator Manco is far too wise to pass on a client's request in a form that the Cinnabar Senate, the most respected deliberative body in the human universe, would find insulting. The Senate, you'll appreciate, is a proud entity."

    He looked from one Councilor to the next. When Adele saw her friend's face in profile it was grinning cheerfully, but even Councilor Waddell stiffened for an instant when Daniel's eyes flicked over him. Waddell looks like a plump rabbit meeting a snake....

    "I'm an officer of the RCN," Daniel continued, "and as it chances I'm also the son of former Speaker Leary. I understand the Senate's fully justifiable pride. It sent me with an able staff in the Republic's name."

    "He's that Leary!" said the man in ruffs to Fahey. He gave Daniel a look of appraisal and, to a degree, respect. Though he hadn't identified himself, Adele now knew from his electronic communications with his aides that he was Councilor Tortoni.

    "I'll do my best to answer any questions you may have," Daniel said. He remained standing, his hands crossed behind his back as though he were an officer at Parade Rest, briefing a group of Senators. "I've just arrived on your planet, however. I won't formulate a plan of action until I've familiarized myself both with the situation on Dunbar's World and the resources you yourselves have available."

    He cleared his throat, letting the Councilors glance among themselves and whisper into the throat microphones that connected them with their aides. Adele smiled faintly as her wands quivered.

    She'd already entered the systems of Manco house. Now, through the Councilors' to-and-fro commo streams, she was adding their databases to her store. She'd require the special equipment aboard the Princess Cecile to break some of the encryptions, but that shouldn't take long.

    Adele hadn't been sent to Bennaria in order to penetrate the information systems of the Republic's friends, but she firmly believed that there was no useless information. And in the particular case--

    Some people were friends in name alone; with others the word "friend" had a much deeper meaning. The Bennarian Council, at least the portion she was meeting today, were not in the latter group, and she was beginning to doubt that this lot were friends even in name. No doubt that was an example of her regrettable tendency to cynicism.

    But that cynicism was something which experience of the world had taught her early and which additional experience had consistently reinforced.



    At age sixteen, Midshipman Leary had been assigned to the training vessel Gannet, a former patrol sloop now configured for the basic instruction of would-be RCN officers. The Gannet's warrant officers had tongues like wood rasps, and they used starters of braided conduit to punctuate their words. Daniel and the other midshipmen of his rotation were rightly terrified of them.

    Now he looked at the five most powerful men on Bennaria. Their moods were, judging from their expressions, anything from sour to seriously angry.

    It was all Daniel could do to keep from laughing. He'd seen real politicians, with his father the fiercest and most powerful of all. Did these bumpkins think they could frighten Daniel Leary?

    "Gentlemen," he said. "Councilors. I take it that you're a select committee of the Council chosen to deal with the emergency? I wonder--"

    "We are the Council," Fahey said. "There's twenty-seven houses with chairs, but the others know to vote as they're told or it'll be the worse for them."

    "No one else matters," Knox agreed with a fierce nod.

    "Well, Councilor, there is Councilor Corius," Luff said nervously. "I only mention this because he's called what he calls an Assembly of the People for tomorrow midday. Not that I believe--"

    "Corius thinks that Corius matters!" Waddell snarled, raising his bulk on the loveseat. "Corius thinks too bloody much, and he supposes that by stirring up the rabble he can get us to notice him. Well, I've got news for him!"

    He glared at Daniel. Waddell was fat, but he was a genuinely big man as well, six-feet four-inches tall, as best Daniel could judge from seeing him seated.

    "I can sit on my estate and let the whole of Charlestown rot!" he said. "I'll be no worse for it. We all can do that! Are Corius and his gutter sweepings going to hike through the marshes to change my mind? I don't think so! And they'll pretty quickly learn that Charlestown eats food that the estates send, not the other way around."

    "I appreciate that there are domestic political aspects, Councilor," Daniel said. "My own duties are limited to what you asked the Republic to help with, however--the invasion of Dunbar's World."

    He felt as if he were dancing on ice. With a partner who'd much rather be dancing with somebody else. The humor of the image--Waddell in a tutu--struck him; he grinned broadly, shocking the fat man into a coughing fit. Jets of cigar smoke spurted from his nostrils.

    "As I said, I can't offer a detailed plan until I have more to go on," Daniel said to take attention away from Waddell. He'd met the fellow's sort before. They were even more unpleasant as enemies than as allies, so Daniel preferred not to embarrass him. "Still, it's clear from the information I've already gathered that Nataniel Arruns can't continue attacking without resupply from Pellegrino. That seems the obvious weak point."

    "Yes, it is bloody obvious," said Waddell. "Which is why we asked for help that Cinnabar could readily provide but decided not to."



    He turned and said--to Fahey but obviously speaking to all his fellows, "It seems we need to consider our next move, gentlemen. It might be better to cut our losses now and open negotiations with Arruns."

    "You know the kind of bargain he'll drive, Waddell," Fahey said peevishly. "Besides, my family's had a relationship with the Pentlands on Dunbar's World since back in my grandfather's day--and yours with the Retzes. I don't like the idea of selling them out."

    "If I may interject, Councilors?" said Daniel, who didn't need the permission of fat wogs to do any bloody thing but who intended to keep it polite. "My understanding is that Bennaria has a fleet of its own that should be more than sufficient to interdict supplies from Pellegrino, especially given your advantage of position. I believe--"

    "Look, Commander," Waddell said. "I'll try to put this in words short enough that you can understand me. First, the Armed Squadron isn't in any kind of shape to be fighting a war."

    "Well, the Sibyl is," said Knox unexpectedly.

    Everybody looked at him. "Well, I am head of the squadron committee, you know," he said defensively. He toyed with his beard. "I asked Admiral Wrenn for a briefing just the other day and he assured me that the Sibyl could lift as soon as she had a crew aboard."

    "I wouldn't take Wrenn's word that the sun rose in the east," grunted Councilor Layard, tapping cigar ash onto the malachite table.

    "And just where did you think the crew was coming from?" said Fahey. "Don't you remember the Concordia Day celebrations last year? Wrenn had to rob the whole staff out of the Pool just to lift the Sibyl off and do a fly-past. If somebody wanted to steal the fittings off every bloody ship in the squadron, he could've done it without worrying about a watchman."

    "Well, I wasn't suggesting that we do it!" Knox said, glaring angrily at Daniel. The Councilors obviously didn't like each other very much, but they all knew it was safer to lash out at foreigners than at one another. "There's nothing wrong with the ship, though."

    "Wrenn says," said Layard. He sneered.

    They think it's safer to take it out on foreigners. Daniel continued to smile mildly at the Councilors. Maybe in the case of Luff that was true. He, however, was an RCN officer. So long as his duties to the RCN required it, he would be polite to them. When that ceased to be the case, Councilor Waddell was going to find himself dangling from a sixth-floor window with Daniel's hand on the scruff of his neck.

    If Adele didn't shoot the fat bastard first, of course.

    "It doesn't matter whether the ship can fly," said Waddell. "It doesn't matter if all the bloody ships can fly! If we attack one of Arruns' warships, we're at war with Pellegrino. Our trade stops right there, period. Nothing goes out of Ganpat's Reach, and no ship that trades with us will be allowed to go through Pellegrino even if they don't have Bennarian cargo aboard. Period, I said!"

    The stub of Waddell's cigar had gone out. He looked at it in sudden fury and flung it onto the carpet. Luff started to bend forward to pick the butt up; he caught himself instead and straightened.

    "Commander," said the man whose name Daniel didn't know, "what's happening on Dunbar's World is a private affair that doesn't involve the Pellegrino government. Officially. If Cinnabar chose to get involved, even by attacking Pellegrinian ships, well, that'd be a matter between Cinnabar and Chancellor Arruns instead of us."

    "They wouldn't have had to fight, for God's sake!" Knox said. "If they'd just come with a few ships, Arruns'd have found a way to back off without war."

    He'd been looking from one to another of his fellows as he spoke. Now he glowered again at Daniel and added, "But they didn't!"

    "I understand the political sensitivity of the affair," Daniel said, smiling just as mildly as before. "I still hope and expect to be able to carry out my assignment to aid your government in repelling the invasion of Dunbar's World. And simply as a matter of gaining information, I wonder, Councilor Knox--"

    He made a slight bow toward the man.

    "Would you please authorize me to examine your fleet? It's possible that an outsider would see something that your own officers are too familiar with to notice."

    That was more polite than saying that anybody who'd take orders from this lot was certain to be incompetent. It was his duty to be polite.

    "Well, I don't see what...," Knox said, looking sidelong at Councilor Waddell.

    "Yes, all right," Waddell said. "You've come this far, I suppose. My secretary's in the outer office. He'll give you a chit in my name."

    "Ah, sirs?" said Luff. "There's the question of transport. The only vehicle I have that could reach the Squadron Pool is the lighter, and that would be very slow."

    Waddell grimaced. "I begin to see that being a Friend of the Republic isn't worth as much as I thought," he muttered. "You come without ships, and you don't even have an aircar of your own!"

    Daniel didn't speak. The fat man turned to Knox and said, "Have your driver carry him to the Pool. You can spend the night with me in town. We'll want to see what it is Corius is up to tomorrow, after all."

    "Is that safe, do you think?" said Councilor Layard, frowning.

    Waddell shrugged and said, "I've got all the boys in from the estate. I don't intend to leave Waddell House empty--that'd be an invitation to burn it down. If there's real trouble, we'll have time to fly out."

    "Damn Corius," Knox said, rising. "All right, Commander, my man will take you to the Pool. Though I don't see what you plan to do there."

    "Thank you for your kindness, Councilor," Daniel said, bowing again. "Thank you all, gentlemen."

    He didn't know what he was going to accomplish at the Pool either, but he was determined to find some way out of this political tangle. It wasn't simply duty: he was Daniel Leary, and he liked to win.

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